Owl Detection Dogs Need To Overcome Some Skepticism

Mar 1, 2012

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- The latest plan to save the imperiled Northern spotted owl allows shooting an invasive rival bird, the barred owl. An important part of the recovery plan is getting accurate owl counts. Researchers have been experimenting with specially trained dogs that can identify spotted owl and barred owl roosts. But as Correspondent Tom Banse reports, it's not clear yet whether the technique will catch on.

The current method of surveying for endangered spotted owls involves playing recorded owl calls and waiting for a response.

But nature is throwing a wrench in this technique. Researcher Lisa Hayward says barred owls are expanding into this region. They're harassing their smaller cousins, and making spotted owls harder to locate.

"The spotted owl is becoming less responsive to vocalizations," Hayward says. "We think that's because we know the barred owl will attack with lethal force, in some cases. It's not in the interest of the spotted owl to draw attention to its presence."

Hayward until recently worked at the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology. That center figured a good work-around would be to train dogs to go in the woods and locate owls by the scent of their pellets and poop.

"They sit down and indicate and then the surveyors bring those pellets back to the lab and they can swab the surface to actually confirm if it is a spotted owl pellet or barred owl," Hayward explains.

The research team is preparing to publish results of a three-year study. It shows the dogs can identify spotted owl and barred owl roosts, and they can do it far more efficiently than traditional vocal surveys.

Jim Thrailkill supervises the Roseburg, Oregon field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Government agencies like his are waiting for peer-reviewed and published results. Until then, he says he's not yet ready to endorse detection dogs.

"The Service is open to having landowners and agencies come in and chat with us about alternative ways to find spotted owls," Thrailkill says. "We need to have a discussion about the rigor that goes in and what the statistical analysis would say about presence and absence."

Supporters of the owl-sniffing dogs say their technique has the potential to save taxpayers and private timberland owners many thousands of dollars by reducing the time spent surveying.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network